Universal Salvation raises the critically important question of how we read the Bible—or ‘hermeneutics’. That is what Robin covers in this talk. He sweeps us through a big landscape in three succinct waves—each bigger than the one before.
First, he confronts the foreground question of biblical texts—and he makes the point that everybody has problems here. How do we reconcile God’s love with his omnipotence?
He then moves onto slightly broader terrain—we need to read texts in their context BUT the meaning of the texts will often be bigger than even the author intended or realised.
Finally, he finishes with a new horizon of interpretation—the future. He talks about the ‘trajectories’ of the biblical canon, which stretch beyond themselves for future generations—like ours—to articulate. He uses the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as an example.Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations
Tony introduces Rev Dr Robin Parry by explaining what Gospel Conversations is all about—expanding our view of God and that means inquiring into mystery. The best way to inquire is to firstly map out the landscape of a debate and see where it takes us—and that is exactly what Robin does in this marvellous talk. He gives us a birds-eye view of the long debate over universalism.
But he goes further—and he gives us a map to navigate the territory. He defines what universalism is and is not. He explains the different pathways that have led many orthodox Christians to consider it seriously—Bible, patristics, experience, and ‘gospel logic’. This takes a lot of confusion and heat out of the debate and gives us a clear view of the topic. But it also hints at a bigger view of God, and a broader view of Christian thinking. Robin gives us the gift of years of learning and thought in one hour.
Listen to the podcast episode:
Below I’ve transcribed a video clip introducing Robin Parry and explaining why hell is such an important topic to explore.
We in Gospel Conversations got interested in hell rather intensely—or decided to be interested in hell—about 18 months ago. For a period of time before that, I personally was worried about the doctrine of Hell. Worried because it just simply doesn’t fit in with the broader Creation Gospel that we’d spent a long time developing and exploring in Gospel Conversations.
In Gospel Conversations we’re really trying to take God out of the religious box and put him in the big wide world. That meant starting to read the Bible in Genesis 1—not in Genesis 3—and seeing the resurrection as the recreation of all humanity. This is very, very good news. It’s a declaration—a hugely humanistic declaration—on what it is to be made an image of God—that’s all very optimistic… and then you put hell into it and it’s all very pessimistic. It isn’t just pessimism, it isn’t just an emotional conflict; it’s a logical conflict between a message of goodness and optimism and a message of exclusion.
So I decided last year to give a series of talks, which were exploratory because I didn’t really know what I thought. I think it’s a matter that’s genuinely ambiguous. As we did that and we stumbled across what’s commonly called the doctrine of Apocatastasis, which is the Greek word that Peter uses in his sermon in Acts 3 to describe the world reformation Christ has inaugurated.
We discovered that Robin Parry was one of the people who had been through a similar journey and then articulated—fairly thoroughly—from a biblical point of view this question he had explored himself—gone on the same journey. I thought (and not just me but many people) he—in a very reasonable way—put forward a balanced consideration of the question and a balanced support for universal salvation from an evangelical position.
So we decided to invite Robin out to our conference in July [20th and 27th, 2019, Sydney]. We’re very excited about that. Robin’s a good speaker but a gentle, open-minded, intelligent man. On the first Saturday we will listen to him talk and on the second Saturday it will be more interactive, with him and others, talking about the consequences of this re-paradigming or reshaping of the Gospel towards hope rather than hell.
It’s certainly something that we want to put on the agenda. It’s been on the agenda of the church for centuries and only recently got off the agenda of the church. We hope that a lot of people will come and listen because a lot of people worry about this but have no place to explore and discuss it. This is our our gift to all such people.
Below is the second post in a mini-series unpacking my talk above.
Before I get to how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, I’ll share a few more possible parallels to the account in 1 Peter. First, Jesus pointed back to Jonah:
From the belly of the underworld [literally Hades in the Greek] I cried out for help… You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me… I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.
But you brought me out of the pit.
Jonah 2:2b,3,6b, CEB
Here we have a descent to Hades intertwined with the image of a flood, similar to 1 Peter. There’s also the parallel of the “bars” and being imprisoned, and that both Jonah and Jesus were in Hades for 3 days before being raised (Von Balthasar and Parry suggest Lamentations is another OT parallel 1).
But there’s more, while Jesus was going through Hades he preached the good news so that the dead prisoners could be saved (v6b “live with God”):
I think that’s reinforced by Ephesians 4:8 (above), John 12:32, and Philippians 2:8-11 (see table below for all the similarities).
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”
John 12:32, CEB
|1 Peter 3:18-4:11||Philippians 2:8-11|
|Christ died (v18)||Christ died (v8)|
|Jesus proclaimed the Good News (v6)||At the name of Jesus [Good News of Jesus proclaimed?] (v10)|
|prison (19); the dead (v6)||under the earth [common way to describe Hades] (v10)|
|their spirits will live with God (v6)||every tongue shall confess 2 (v11)|
|Jesus at the right hand of God in heaven (v22)||God highly exalted Jesus & gave him the name that is above every name (v9)|
|angels, authorities, & powers subject to Jesus (v22)||every knee will bow to Jesus—in heaven & on earth & under the earth (v10)|
|that God may be glorified (v11)||to the glory of God (v11)|
And maybe these two verses are also alluding to the idea:
And they [the kings of the earth] shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited [episkopḗ: “oversight that naturally goes on to provide the care and attention appropriate to the “personal visitation.””].
Isaiah 24:22, KJV
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Zechariah 9:11, ESV
First, most people see death as a very significant problem that humans face. Therefore, believing God has defeated death should inspire hope. I think this was particularly the case for Peter’s audience in their non-Christian society. Think about it, whenever someone became a Christian, surely one of the questions would be:
What about most of my friends and relatives who don’t believe—especially all those who have died without even hearing the Good News?
Well, I think Peter’s answer is, “Jesus has told them the Good News so they could turn to Him for salvation.”
Second, “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too.” (v1) Jesus proclaimed the Good News so we proclaim the Good News. Jesus did good so we try to do good. Some people will think we’re strange and will slander us—or worse. Depending on how severely they do that, it can certainly feel like hell, especially if it involves being betrayed by someone you love.
How do we respond to the suffering? We, “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of our life.” (v15a) That involves continuing to do what Jesus did: Even in the depths of hell, He proclaimed the Good News so we should try to proclaim the Good News wherever we are. Jesus did good even when He physically suffered for it, so we try to continue to do good—particularly to those who are trapped in the hellish existence with us.
I think it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t just pretend He wasn’t suffering, He acknowledged it and chose to persevere through it (the night before He was betrayed comes to mind). Likewise, we should acknowledge the suffering and try to imitate Jesus’ brave attitude. And God may even use this to rescue and draw others to Him. Regardless, we are guaranteed to be lifted up again—if not in this life, in the next.
So, “can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds?” (v13) The answer is no, they can’t permanently harm you. “Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you.” (v14a) He promises to heal everything in the long run. “So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.” (v14b) No matter what hell someone drags you into, Jesus will rescue you from it in due course.
1. “[M]y work on Lamentations started me thinking more about “the descent into hell.” I argued that Lamentations was Israel’s Holy Saturday literature, located midway between the death and resurrection of Jerusalem. It was Israel’s theological equivalent of Christ in the tomb. Thus I was led to connect Lamentations to the issue of hell and universalism and, via Von Balthasar, to the descent to the dead (Parry, Lamentations, 197–201).” Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 219
2. A common objection is that some people will only confess under duress, however, there are lots of reasons for thinking that’s not the case:
There is more to come—there is the fullness. There is coming a day when, as Paul says in Romans 11, the deliverer will come from Zion and “all Israel will be saved.” Not just the current remnant of Messiah-believers, but also those who at the moment reject Jesus. There is a day coming when, as the book of Revelation says, the kings of the earth and all the nations will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem through its ever-open gates to worship God and the Lamb.
Now we see salvation in part, then we shall see it in full.
So currently we see a division within Israel and the nations between the redeemed and the lost, between the elect according to grace and those who are not, but one day there will be no such division. And then the promises associated with the birth of the Messiah will be filled full, or full-filled.
My second theme can be explained much more simply. Remember that Christmas is also about the incarnation—the Word made flesh, “eternity contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” For the Church, the real and complete humanity of Jesus is really important. The Church Fathers said: “that which has not been assumed has not been healed.” What they meant was that Jesus had to be human to heal our humanity. If he had not taken on our human nature then he could not transform it in himself.
Now Jesus is, of course, a particular human being. He is a real, solid, flesh and blood and bone and spit human individual. But more than that, he is a representative person. As the Messiah of Israel, he represents the whole nation of Israel before God. He is Israel-in-miniature. He embodies its story of exile and restoration in his death and resurrection. In the same way, he is the second Adam—the fountainhead of a renewed human race. In his humanity, he represents all humans before God. The story of humanity in its expulsion from Eden and its subjection to death is played out in his crucifixion. But then his resurrection is not simply about himself—it is on our behalf, the behalf of all of us, Jews and Gentiles. The resurrection of Jesus is the resurrection of humanity in him. It is the future of the world inscribed into the risen flesh of the Son of God. And it is here, in this risen and ascended human being that my hope for universal salvation is grounded. How can we know that God will one day deliver all? Because God has already declared his hand in the resurrection. It has been done—so it will come to pass.
And all this promise was wrapped up in the life of a little human baby in a manger in Bethlehem.
That, at least, is something of what may be a little distinctive about a universalist’s understanding of Christmas.
The fact that the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus focus on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (who has been sent to redeem and rule Israel), needs to be seen in the light of the bigger biblical picture.
Super-briefly—Israel was chosen from amongst the nations for the sake of the nations. God’s plan to redeem the whole human world was focused through his work for the nation of Israel. However, Israel herself was sinful and in need of redemption before God could bring to pass his saving purposes for the world. In the visions of the prophets, the new age was one in which God would first rescue his covenant people and then the nations would abandon their false gods and come and worship the God of Israel alongside Israel. And that’s the story we see in Luke’s gospel-story. Jesus is all about the salvation of Israel, and, precisely because of that, he is all about the salvation of the nations. That’s why the song of Simeon links the two. Once Israel is saved the nations can be saved. And that is why Luke’s bigger narrative in the story that runs across Luke-Acts moves from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. First Israel, then the nations.
Now, while the good news announced by the angels is not for “all people,” it is for “all the people”. We should note that it is for “all the people” (i.e., all Israel). The focus of the redemption in the speeches of Luke’s birth narrative is Israel as a whole, rather than simply some within Israel—read them and check it out. The intended beneficiaries of the Messiah’s activity are all Israel. The focus is Israel-as-a-whole.
Similarly, the hints at blessings for the Gentiles simply pick out “all nations” as the target (i.e., everyone who is not a Jew).
So what at first seems to be pretty parochial turns out to be surprisingly all-encompassing.
Now, of course, one cannot simply read full-blown universalism off these texts. It would be perfectly possible to speak hyperbolically of the salvation of all the people Israel and all the nations in a situation in which some individuals are not saved for one reason or another. The focus of the text is the two groups, not every individual that composes them. (Although, even then, it presumably speaks of the salvation of at very least the of the individuals that compose the two groups. If only a tiny remnant of Israel benefits from the Messiah, it would be more than odd to refer to them as “all the people.”)
So while this theme is compatible with universalism and could even be taken to suggest it, it does not demonstrate it. However, if one is already a universalist for other reasons—as I am—then these birth stories do indeed bring encouragement for an eventual global restoration.
But we must not see the journey in any simple and direct way. All the Gospel writers are well aware that Jesus actually causes division in both groups. Though many in Israel accept him, even more reject him; though many Gentiles embrace the good news, many more resist it. So any universalism that we see in the Christmas story would have to be able to incorporate this important element of the story.
Now the model of universalism that I developed in my book (The Evangelical Universalist), recognizes that the journey to the destination of the salvation of all Israel and all the nations takes a complicated route. I argued that the NT holds in tension the idea of the kingdom of God here now and its future fullness. The new creation has begun, but it is yet to come. It is now, but it is not yet.
This tension, this overlap of the old age and the new age, helps us to understand the story of the salvation of Israel and the nations, which was promised in the Christmas story.
The Jewish Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of saved Israel; and the gentile Christ believers in the Jesus communities are a microcosm of the saved nations. So in the ekklesia, i.e., the community of Christ, we can already see the promised redemption of Israel and the nations. When Jews and Gentiles, redeemed by Jesus, gather together as one in Christ to worship God, then we see the promises of the prophets fulfilled. Israel is saved. The new age has dawned. The Spirit has been poured out. The nations are coming to acknowledge the God of Israel. This is what the Messiah has achieved.
But there is more to come…
A Universalist Christmas?
I had never thought about it.
Really, for Christian universalists, Christmas is about the same stuff as it is for every other Christian: the birth of Jesus—the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in human flesh. It is about “God with us” as one of us; it is about God’s faithfulness to promises he made to his covenant people Israel; it is about the promise of redemption; it is about the turning point in history. And the Christmas stories contain loads of other themes: the humility of Mary, submitting her reputation, and perhaps even her life, to obey God; the gentle pride-swallowing grace of Joseph; the revelation of the gospel to mere shepherds; the political power-hungry paranoia and ruthlessness of an insecure king Herod; and so on. But none of this is obviously universalist.
But when Tim Nash calls, one responds, so I want to pursue two lines of thought about how a universalist may have a slightly different spin on Christmas.
The first of these begins with an observation that would, perhaps, even appear to be a problem for universalism—I am referring to the fact that the Christmas story as narrated in Scripture seems to be primarily concerned with the implications of Jesus for the Jews.
The stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are almost exclusively concerned with Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Israel is the nation that God has chosen from all the other nations to be his own special possession. They are his covenant people. However, they had repeatedly fallen short of their covenant calling and were struggling under the oppression of their enemies. They needed salvation; they need transformation; they need the covenant renewing; they need forgiveness; they need the Spirit of God to be poured out on them as the prophets had said.
Many Jews at the time of Jesus were expecting a new king or a new priest to come from God to deliver them from their enemies and renew the covenant. They were looking forward with aching hope, waiting for the anointed one—the priestly or kingly Messiah—to come. God had promised it through the prophets of old. This is, of course, what Advent is about.
Now the birth stories, the Christmas stories, in Matthew and Luke very clearly announce that this long-awaited salvation is at last dawning for Israel because her Messiah has been born. God’s king is at last here!
This is indeed good news for Israel, but in the birth-stories in the Gospels, the relation of Gentiles to Jesus gets hardly a look-in. This is especially evident if you read the speeches of the characters in Luke’s Gospel: the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. For all of them, as for Luke himself, this story is about the redemption of Israel, God’s covenant people.
But, I hear you cry, what about the words of the angel to the shepherds? You know the ones.
Fear not, said he,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and . . . all mankind.
While Shepherds Watched, Nahum Tate
That’s nice but the problem is that this is not what the angel said. What he actually said was: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Not “for all people” but “for all the people.” And there can be absolutely no doubt in the context of Luke Israel-centric birth stories that “the people” means “the people of Israel.”
The only hint of something more comes in the song of Simeon on seeing baby Jesus:
“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Luke 2:30–32, NIV
It is not clear whether Simeon was thinking of salvation coming to the Gentiles or merely of salvation coming to Israel, with all the nations witnessing it. However, there can be no doubt at all that Luke himself does see Jesus as one who brings saving revelation to the Gentiles, as well as to Israel. And Luke intends his audience to perceive this in Simeon’s words.
The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel similarly function as representatives of the gentile nations, coming to worship the Messiah, the true king of Israel.
Nevertheless, there is not a whole lot for the universalist here
. . . or perhaps there is.
Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.
Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.
If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1
Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”
In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.
The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:
It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2
It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.
1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . . Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk
2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/
Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.
So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.
Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.
One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!
We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?
Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.
So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.
And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.
For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.
Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.
Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.
In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.
1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be?
—First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95).
—Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority.
2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179.
3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld.
4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.
Doctrines of hell—in both Augustinian and freewill versions, and both eternal torment and annihilationist editions—have more problems than a hedgehog has spikes. It is hard to know how best to handle the issue in so short a time. So I thought I’d use the “Rethinking Hell” triangle as my guide on the journey and use the issue of God’s victory over evil as a way in.
First, a word on the ontology of evil. Here one of my part-time heroes, Augustine, offers some helpful insight. He argued that all created things come from the goodness of the Creator and are good (Ench. ad Laur. 9–10). Evil itself is not a substance, not a thing, but an absence of good.
In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the disease and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in a healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
Augustine, Ench. ad Laur. 11.
The ontology of evil that Augustine articulated here was in fact a widely shared Christian view by his day. The Christian Platonist tradition prior to Augustine held firmly to the notion that evil was not ontologically essential to creation and that God would defeat it. But defeat it how? Two options have been considered by Christians: you can either (a) imprison it or (b) annihilate it. And there are two very different ways one can annihilate evil: one can either annihilate the substance that has been corrupted by evil or one can heal the substance that has been corrupted by evil, thereby eradicating the evil. This yields the three basic options of the hell triangle.
- The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
- The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
- The Hospital: annihilate evil by healing those afflicted with it.
Or, as we better know them: everlasting torment, annihilationism, and universalism. (I ought to add that Jerry Walls has his own hybrid version and the following analysis does not do justice to it.)